PALMER - Sandra Barker looks like something straight out of an Old West movie.
Black cowboy hat, black shirt and black cowboy boots. Her attire was perfect for Sunday's barrel racing event at Saddle-Up Horse Arena. The image of her wearing all black and sitting on a brown horse smoking a cigarette resembled a villain you'd see in a John Wayne film.
But Barker is one of the good girls. In fact, she's one of the best barrel racers in Alaska.
A nine-time state champion, Barker, 37, has been racing horses in Wasilla since she was 10 years old. She's a favorite to win any time she climbs in the saddle. She has one of the most recognizable names in one of the most obscure sports. And she plays the part of a cowgirl perfectly, highlighted by the black hat.
"It's my thinking cap," she said. "If I don't have it on, it's just not the same. Not with me anyway."
Barker's 9-year-old daughter Katelyn wants to be just like mom. Katelyn has followed her footsteps in barrel racing and now dresses the same way. Sunday, the little girl was also decked out in black.
"I look good in black like her," Katelyn said with a grin.
The cowboy life, it seems, is the preferred lifestyle for women in the rodeo. They pass on the value of working hard, the importance of caring for the horses and the thrill of competition just as much as the men. They are every bit the definition of a cowboy, which is why the term "Cowgirl Up" was created.
"Rodeo is a way of life," said Yvonne Rowland, who along with her husband, Tim, founded the Lazy R Rodeo organization that helped put on Sunday's event. "We have girls that just started this year racing against girls that have been racing all their lives. We've got working moms out here."
Barrel racing is a predominantly women's event, although a few boys helped make up the 39-racer field for Sunday's Jackpot Barrel Race. It was one of the largest fields in recent memory, organizers said, largely because of the $3,000 that was added to the prize pool.
Most of the competitors planned on using the money to help with travel expenses to the national finals in Reno, Nev., in October. But not all of them came for the cash.
Lindsey Dewhurst competed Sunday for the love of it, said her dad, Jerry, who came out for support. Lindsey can't make the trip to nationals because it conflicts with her schedule as an engineering student at UAF. That made Sunday a must-do event.
Dewhurst's passion for horses has turned her dad into a wannabe cowboy. At 65, Jerry has lots of free time to tend to the family's four horses at their Hillside home. But he had never ridden a horse outside a carnival until three years ago. Now he can't ride enough.
"I'm having a blast," he said. "I don't go fishing anymore. I just ride horses. This is a total new way of life, feeding at 5:30 in the morning, feeding at night. We've become horse people."
Next up for him is becoming a real cowboy. Jerry doesn't want to ride bulls, and he doesn't know how to rope cattle like most of the guys in a rodeo. But he knows how to barrel race, which leaves him open for friendly jabs from his buddies.
"They don't consider me a cowboy," he said. "Some of the guys who have been around a long time tease me. They say, 'Now you've got to start roping."'
Kidding aside, barrel racers are the real deal. They are intense, hissing and yelling encouragement to the horse while attacking the course. They are also tough. One rider's horse slipped on the muddy infield outside the arena and fell on its side, knocking the girl to the ground. She jumped up, brushed herself off and climbed back on in a matter of seconds.
During the races, the action is quick - the best riders finish in the 13- to 14-second range. And you can almost feel the power of the horses. Standing near the finish chute, the sound of a horse whizzing by is similar to that of a roar from a blazing snowmachine.
Country music played from a two-foot, black speaker inside the arena while the 50 or so fans watched from a small section of bleachers. There was a sign reading, "Ride at your Own Risk," hanging from a wall as riders approached the arena. It was a reminder of how dangerous the rodeo can be, but it would take a lot more to strike fear in these women.
"This is what we do," Barker said.